by Bob Gates
Who knew? Once upon a long time ago Whittier Park and Polo Park race tracks were playgrounds for the rich and famous.
Hollywood types from the early to mid-1900s made regular pilgrimages to Winnipeg with some of their finest California-breds in tow. They raced at Whittier and Polo Park until Whittier shut down in 1942 and then carried on at Polo until it closed on July 4, 1956. Some 70 years have passed since then, so some of the names I am going to bring up may not sound familiar.
Anita King was a silent film star from another era, yet it was common to see horses run in her silks at Whittier and Polo. Others, such as Betty Grable and her million dollar legs, band leader Harry James, and "gangster" George Raft, are also memorable.
In 1947, Carlante, a horse owned by Mickey Rooney, raced at Polo Park. The same card saw Mrs. William Demarest, wife of the movie star (Uncle Charlie from My Three Sons) decorating a horse in the winner's enclosure.
Anita King (1884-1963) was a stunt driver, silent screen actress and thoroughbred racehorse owner. She rose to stardom in 1914 when she appeared in "The Virginian" directed by Cecil B. DeMille. In 1916 she became the first woman to drive across the United States.
In the 1940s King took up horse racing and operated one of the best known and most successful stables on the west coast. Her horse Moonrush, ridden by Johnny Longden, won the prestigious Santa Anita Handicap in 1951.
Among King's horses in Winnipeg were Emerald Bay and Son of War, who ran first and second in the 1942 edition of the Polo Park Handicap. Son of War also won the Speers Handicap in 1943. Another beauty from her stable, Erne Castle won the Fort Rouge Handicap in 1943.
King was 78 when she passed on June 10, 1963, which just happened to be the 5th anniversary of the opening of the Downs.
Harry James (1916-1983), the trumpet playing band leader dating back to the late 1930s, also appeared in films, most of which had his band worked into the plot. James was married three times, most notably to Betty Grable in 1943. They divorced in 1965.
Racing at Polo Park was used to lure James and his band to Winnipeg in 1956. He was signed to perform at the Red River Exhibition and the Rancho Don Carlos. Who remembers the Don Carlos at 650 Pembina Highway?
Polo Park's featured race of the day on June 27, 1956 was the Harry James Handicap. James was present to have his photo taken with the race winner, Max Freed's Light Dust. Now there's a horse that's a real blast from the past!
While in town James made inquiries about purchasing the contract of jockey Hugo Dittfach, from Calgary's Tommy Morrison. The $20,000 price tag was too steep however, and caused him to shy away from the deal. Dittfach, one of the hardest working jockeys of the day, would go on to be leading rider at the Downs in its first season of operation in 1958.
Coincidentally, James died on July 5, 1983 at age 67, exactly 40 years after he was married to Betty Grable (July 5, 1943) and one day past the 27th anniversary of the closing of Polo Park on July 4, 1956. Grable died July 5, 1973, 30 years after her marriage to James and the day after the 17th anniversary of the closure of Polo.
The popular comedy team of Bud Abbott (1897-1974) and Lou Costello (1906-1959) from the 1940s and '50s, also made a whistle stop at old Polo Park for the running of the Abbott and Costello Handicap on September 6, 1946.
Needless to say the pair caused quite a stir when they decorated race winner Leo's Lady ridden by Emil Roy. A huge crowd surrounded the stars of the popular routine "Who's on First" - all seeking to get their race program autographed by Hollywood's popular comedy act.
Life was good back in the Swing Era and in Post-War America. You attended the races during the day and then spent the night at the Rancho Don Carlos, owned and operated by Carlo (Charlie) Mazzone. Better known as Don Carlos, Mazzone loved the races and had his own stable of horses at Polo Park. While their numbers are dwindling, talk to any old-timer and they'll tell you, those were the days!
Polo Park, Whittier Park and the Don Carlos are but distant memories, as are the rich and famous who once made these iconic establishments their playground, but as Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous' host Robin Leach would say, here's to…
Champagne Wishes and Caviar Dreams!